Lenten Writing: Bird-Shaped Holes

This morning I watched two tufted titmice in the maple tree at the bedroom window. They sipped from icicles on limbs that nearly reached the porch roof which is still laden with snow from recent storms. They were quick and alert, the way it sometimes feels to be happy.

They reminded me of the summer before law school and how obsessed with birds I suddenly became. I had left Vermont to live in a city close to the law school. I was lost and confused, unsure of where ambition had led me. In response I read deeply and obsessively about birds, hiked alone up and down the Seven Sisters, canoed miles of the Connecticut River between Sunderland and Northampton, sat for hours in Forest Park, all with binoculars, guidebooks and notepads.

The idea became that there was a hole in me that only birds could fill. Every time I saw a bird, the void that was so much of my being, that I pictured as a sort of hungry blackness, would fill a little. It was as if the birds were made of light. Each feathery ray illuminating me by degrees, staving off collapse.

Of course I would say it differently today. Birds – like maple trees, like children, like rivers – frame the void, which is utterly impersonal. The shape of anything is the shape of the cosmos, and that to which we give attention is already attending us, for we too are objects, living frames through which the universe spills.

For a long time I called that understanding – and its occasional embodied manifestations – holy, which was a way of making it a special private accomplishment. I regret that, of course. The desire to hoard anything as a way of excluding others from sharing it is unloving. It hurts, and the pain is not ours alone.

One learns, one does.

The tufted titmice, though. They also reminded me of how earlier last week – before Lent began – I had felt unexpectedly very close to Jesus, somewhat the way I felt in Vermont before leaving for law school. In those days, in Vermont, I wrote poems and songs and rarely spoke to anyone other than Jesus, the cardinal exception being public librarians who helped me track down obscure articles and out-of-print books. My study was the Lord and the liberation from sin proclaimed by his son. Its fruit was a dizzy sense of proximity and intimacy with Christ.

It was the same last week. If I spoke, Jesus answered. Whatever worried me, Jesus reminded me he would cover it. It was like being wrapped in a weighted blanket all day, angels murmuring pacifying hymns at all hours. I liked it. I suspected it would pass but while it lingered, I liked it.

And pass it did, slowly eclipsed by my ongoing reading, teaching, writing and house-and-homestead chores. It was good that it passed. It was. The work now is not easy and there are no guides, no maps, and no easy outs. Fellow travelers, yes. Way stations, yes. A deep sense of it-will-all-work-out, yes. But guides and maps, no. Not anymore.

And that, really, finally, was the point of this morning’s titmice. They reminded me of that period that came after that year or so of dialogic intimacy with Jesus, a period in which a vast emptiness arose in me, one that declined to be filled with familiar narratives, scriptural exegesis, institutional ritual and pre-meditated meditations.

The birds forced me into the world in a rough but focused way. Look for us, they cried. Know us better, they sang. They forced me into a relationship with attention that for all its studiousness was never not yoked to the world. The birds forced me to attend. They called me to a vivid praxis that was unexpected and confusing. Bird-watching? Really?

And yet that praxis sustained me through those early confusing years of law school, the crazy academic pressure and competition, the living in a city, the abiding uncertainty about lawyering as a career. Really, until I settled in with Chrisoula, and we moved back to Vermont and – in our stumbling way – into the homesteading life that is our (yet shaky) fundament, that bird-centered praxis was what breathed me.

What I mean to say – chirpy avian that I sometimes am – is that we do not always know the form our requisite praxis will take. Today, on the fifth day of Lent, 2019, it took the shape of two tufted titmice, these sentences and, threaded throughout, a sense that you were listening, noticing, attending, bringing me forth in love.

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